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Name: U.S. v. Comprehensive Drug Testing, Inc.
Case #: 05-10067
Court: US District Court
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 09/13/2010

The search and seizure of computer files is subject to the procedural safeguards outlined in U.S. v. Tamura (9th Cir. 1982) 694 F.3d 591. The government obtained a warrant to search for and seize drug-testing records and specimens to investigate a lab suspected of providing steroids to baseball players. A different lab than the one under investigation performed the drug tests and kept the specimens, and third entity maintained a list of the players tested, collected the specimens, and kept the test results. The government’s warrant sought information on ten baseball players who had tested positive for steroids. But when the warrant was executed, the government seized and reviewed hundreds of drug-testing records. This information was in turn used to obtain more warrants and subpoenas for use in the prosecution against the suspected lab. Three district courts ordered the return of property seized and quashed subpoenas obtained with the information. The government appealed. Noting that computer files are intermingled and cannot be examined or segregated on the spot, the government tried to justify its actions based on the plain view doctrine, the theory being that they had to open files to find the ones at issue and in so doing discovered other evidence in plain view. The Ninth Circuit concluded, “This was an obvious case of deliberate overreaching by the government in an effort to seize date as to which it lacked probable cause.” The court held that the seizure and search of electronic files was subject to the principles announced in U.S. v. Tamura (9th Cir. 1982) 694 F.3d 591, which seeks to maintain the privacy of materials intermingled with seizable materials and to prevent turning a limited search for particular information in to general search of office-file systems. The court recognized the legitimate interest and difficult task of law enforcement in gathering and sifting through large quantities of data in this electronic age. But nevertheless, there are methods to segregate target data from other data, such as having a computer-forensic specialist separate data and turn it over to investigators. Indeed that is what the warrant contemplated and yet law enforcement in this case failed to follow that procedure. If procedures for segregation of data are not followed and contents of intermingled files become useable under a plain view theory, this creates a powerful incentive for police to overseize and a risk that every warrant for electronic files effectively becomes a general warrant, rendering the Fourth Amendment meaningless.